The new Arab revolt

Life inside Mubarak’s torture chambers, a letter from Tunisia, why the neoconservatives are still wr

In this week's New Statesman, we publish a special spread on revolt in the Arab world, featuring Tariq Ramadan, Lana Asfour, Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz.

Maajid Nawaz spent four years in prison in Egypt between 2002 and 2006 for his role as leader of the pan-Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir. In this week's New Statesman, Nawaz discusses life in one of Mubarak's torture centres.

I was "Number 42" in the dungeons of Hosni Mubarak's torture facilities. Before me were 41 poor souls, taken one by one and electrocuted. Behind me were hundreds more. Wives were stripped and tortured in front of their husbands, children electrocuted in front of their parents. Few returned from the darkness of Cairo's el-Gihaz and Lazoughly cells . . .

Mubarak's Egypt perfected the art of torture without leaving a mark. His was a regime that terrorised an entire population into silence. His was a regime that basked in the lavish attention of western leaders while Egyptian Islamists, communists and democrats all lived in fear. Now it's game over for him and his regime.

The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan comments on a time of momentous change in the Arab world and asks who will fill the power vacuum being created in the Middle East.

"A barrier has fallen," writes Ramadan. "Nothing will be the same again. It is quite likely that other countries will follow the lead of Egypt, given its central and symbolic significance."

Presidents and kings are feeling the pressure of this historical turning point. The unrest has reached Algeria, Yemen and Mauritania. One should also look at Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. The rulers of all these countries know that if the Egyptian is collapsing, they run the risk of the same destiny.

Egypt could well prove the tipping point for reform and democracy in the Arab world, according to Ramadan.

This state of instability is worrying and at the same time very promising. The Arab world is awakening with dignity and hope. The changes spell hope for true democrats, and trouble for those who would sacrifice democratic principle to their economic and geostrategic calculations.

What will fill the power vacuum is not solely the decision of the populace in the Arab world, however.

Neither the United States nor Europe, not to mention Israel, will easily allow the Egyptian people to make their dream of democracy and freedom come true. The strategic and geopolitical considerations are such that the reform movement will be, and is already, closely monitored by US agencies in co-ordination with the Egyptian army, which has played for time and assumed the crucial role of mediator.

Lana Asfour reports from the epicentre of the Arab revolt, Tunisia.

Whatever Tunisia's political landscape will look like in six months, it is clear that the hard work is just beginning. Tunisia has to address institutional corruption after years of dictatorship and learn how to exercise democracy in all areas of life.

But the novelty of freedom has still not worn off, according to Asfour.

Back on the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue [in Tunis], the mood is exuberant. People are proud of what they have achieved and delighted to be able to speak freely without threat of arrest and torture.

It has been a very civilised revolution, she argues:

What is reassuring about this revolution is that there is little desire for vengeance against those who had ties to the RCD. Tunisia, which can boast a highly educated population and equal rights for women, has conducted a very civilised revolution.

Finally, Mehdi Hasan attacks the crude use of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in order to justify George Bush's foreign policy in the region.

Blair and Bush were not interested in Arab freedom and democracy initially, argues Hasan.

Freedom for the Iraqis became the primary justification for the war only after weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a figment of the neoconservative imagination.

It wasn't that we were opposed to a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East but that we rejected the neocon formula that said democracy could be delivered through the barrel of a gun. We objected to the means, not the ends.

In a 2007 report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that the Bush administration had friendly relations with more than half of the 45 "non-free" countries in the world. Those included Egypt and Tunisia – the latter is now free from the grip of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the former, at the time of writing, is on the brink of liberation from Mubarak's police. Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be next. And the neocons, smug and sanctimonious, can't take credit for any of these events. Are we all neocons now? Of course not.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.